COVID-19: the Virus Undermining Attenborough’s Sustainability Efforts By Alice Brooks

All across the country, we have had to endure months of lockdown, hiding from this invisible monster, in the hope of protecting those we care about the most. Whether the sun was shining and coaxing us out or, the first few flakes of snow are starting to fall as we head into winter, we must do what we can to support our country in battling this virus. Like the majority of us, I found myself with an abundance of spare time so, of course, I worked my way through the entirety of Netflix…and Prime…and Disney+… Then around mid-October, I finally treated myself to Sir David Attenborough’s latest documentary, “A Life on Our Planet”, which offered an insight into the state of our natural world, its fragility and the impact of Sars-CoV-2.

Like always, Attenborough tugged at the heartstrings of the nation. He has truly witnessed the destruction of our beautiful planet, and with this documentary, he pleads with our species one last time to change our ways. This 90-minute summary of the 70 years he spent exploring and ultimately fighting for our planet resonated with me. We claim to have tried so hard to improve our habits to create more sustainable lives but being under the pressure of the coronavirus has sent us spiralling back into our old ways.

To protect ourselves from this virus, many of us jumped on the bandwagon of buying disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) in order to feel safe during our weekly food shop, and we weren’t the only ones. According to the BBC, between February and July 2020, the government spent £12.5 billion on PPE for NHS staff – a huge increase from the £28.9 million spent during the same period in 2019. This huge amount of money bought our health sector over 32 billion items of protective equipment: masks, gloves, visors, and even gowns. And although these items of plastic have fortunately saved thousands of lives, I can’t help but think about the impact it will, and has, had upon our planet.

We have become so self-absorbed during this pandemic that every ounce of decency seems to have left our country and any thoughts of sustainability have gone with it.

Before the pandemic, if I scrolled through Facebook, the occasional “angry post” on my local “Spotted” page would be photos of litter from fast food chains on the side of the road. But as of late, PPE has taken top spot. Masks are strewn across pavements. Rubber gloves scattered in and amongst hedges. Empty sanitizer bottles chucked to the floor outside supermarkets. It’s the new norm. We have become so self-absorbed during this pandemic that every ounce of decency seems to have left our country and any thoughts of sustainability have gone with it.

Not only is our fragile natural world struggling with the repercussions of this pandemic, but shops and businesses are too. Many companies have had to shift their way of thinking, designing different strategies to ensure customers can enjoy their products while remaining safe in stores. Shops such as Costa and Starbucks have eliminated the use of mugs and only provide drinks in single-use cups with single-use plastic or paper straws. Food is served with disposable plastic cutlery and many shops have stopped accepting reusable cups in the fear of coming into contact with too many people. This is the same for many companies all around the world and, of course, it continues to put immense pressure on our environment.

However, not everything to do with COVID-19 has been detrimental to our natural world, in fact, to the delight of Attenborough, there have been huge environmental benefits. Governments all around the globe banned non-essential travel and imposed strict self-isolation rules for those who travelled despite the ban. According to the House of Commons, these rules, which were imposed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, have reduced air travel by 97% this year.

Companies were quick to follow in the footsteps of the government, redesigning their workdays and introducing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams in order for their employees to work from home with ease. As a result of this, gov.uk reported that road travel plummeted by 73%, a level the UK last saw in 1955. Along with the decline in road travel, public transport such as bus, rail and tube also took a dive. Due to this fall in transport usage, this year we saw a temporary dip in greenhouse emissions, a phenomenon for which our environment will be forever thankful.

Along with the evident decline in travel and consequent 17% decline of carbon emissions, according to gov.uk, air quality has also seen an improvement by 11.4%. Thanks to this change in human habits, many areas of our natural world have been able to flourish; as reported by New Scientist, wild bees rely on air quality to do their job as pollinators and lower air quality might hinder their ability to smell flowers from a further distance. But, as the air is clearer in the current climate, pollination is at an all time high, meaning flora and fauna are thriving and, in turn, are creating stable food sources for our herbivores. By doing so, this triggers a knock-on effect throughout the food chain, allowing predators a more substantial food source and thus their predators a more substantial food source.

Land animals haven’t been the only ones to benefit from this atmospheric alteration: oceanic animals have too! Due to the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the new guidance and regulations continuing to be published regarding the subject, the tourism industry has been hit hard. Air travel hasn’t been the only sector impacted, there has also been a lack of boat travel. Since the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention issued a No Sail Order for all cruise ships, cruise ships have not been setting sail. Therefore, the oceans have remained quiet and untouched. As a result, underwater ecosystems have been able to live and survive undisturbed for months, and no doubt this has had a tremendous effect on the breeding rates of many species. For example, New Scientist has written that whales are able to communicate easier and across further distances due to reduced noise pollution; this was reportedly found during the days following the 9/11 attack as trade came to a standstill, so we can only imagine the impact of this No Sail Order. All we can do now is hope that giving our oceans a rest has enabled the undoing of years of overfishing, exploitation, and effects of noise pollution.

Living in lockdown and having to change our habits has been hell for the most of us, but the pressure we have inflicted upon our planet has inevitably been worse. As Attenborough highlights in everything he does, we share this world with thousands of other creatures who all deserve to have this planet for years to come and we are the only species who can make sure they do. This lockdown, as well as being an opportunity to save our own species, has been a chance to reverse our actions, showing us what we have the ability to achieve.

With a vaccine beginning to roll out, I hope we can walk away from this with a new perspective. We are capable of changing our ways to suit our own species, so why can’t we continue to adapt in order to save our natural world?


Created with an image by leo2014